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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965

A close shot of The Supremes posing for the camera in glamorous hair and makeup and sparkling green gowns

As far as years at Motown go, 1966 is hardly the most historical. Placed right at the halfway point in this series, the year certainly was filled to the brim with hits, ranking easily alongside ’64 and ’65 in terms of overall quality. Indeed, this was one of the the most difficult lists in the series for me to narrow down to only five picks. But in large part, things were business as usual. The biggest artist breakthroughs for the year were Kim Weston (It Takes Two with Marvin Gaye), the previously-famous Isley Brothers (This Old Heart of Mine), and Jimmy Ruffin — all of whom rapidly faded back into obscurity.

Still, there were changes on the horizon. The year saw Smokey Robinson unseated as the label’s most reliable one-man songwriter and producer, and the biggest success yet for Norman Whitfield — who would not only usurp Smokey’s access to the Temptations, but soon become the man behind the vast majority of Motown’s hits. Meanwhile, Holland-Dozier-Holland was still turning out hit after hit like a fine-tuned machine, but it was to be the final year of their incredible reign. In 1967, they would release significantly fewer singles — I would say also largely of significantly lesser quality — before departing Motown midway through over contract disputes and leaving multiple artists in a lurch.

If Motown was down to a formula by this point, you certainly couldn’t knock it. The first four songs on this list are all so fantastic, you could just about shuffle them at random and still find yourself with an order that would be hard to argue with. Here they are, the cream of the crop.

1. You Can’t Hurry Love

VIDEO: The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love plays over an image of the group. You Can’t Hurry Love lyrics.

One of the most pop-oriented records in Motown’s catalog, it was songs like this that gave Motown its reputation of having turned its back on Black music’s roots. But while soul music purists may turn their noses up at this track, it’s pure perfection. One of the Supremes’ most outstanding cuts, Diana Ross delivers an incredible, perfectly-phrased vocal that doesn’t miss a beat. Speaking of beats, this track has got plenty, with James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin demonstrating their ability to read each other’s minds, Robert White providing a rhythmic, jangly guitar, and Jack Ashford dominating the track on tambourine. Designed for radio and the dance floor, this is the sound of the Supremes at their peak. And at a time when virtually everything they did went straight to the top, this is a cut that absolutely deserved its #1 spot.

Just as 1966 was the last year of HDH’s reign, it was in my view also the last truly great year for the Supremes. They would suffer as much as anyone from HDH’s departure from the label. Further, 1967 would see the non-coincidentally simultaneous renaming of the group as Diana Ross and the Supremes — making explicit what had been heavily implied for years — and the abhorrent firing of Florence Ballard by Berry Gordy for “insubordination.” But Flo’s remarkably full and unique backing vocals (not to mention her boisterous personality) were not the only loss, as Motown largely failed to utilize Mary Wilson or Flo’s replacement Cindy Birdsong on future recordings, instead substituting them with the label’s house backing vocalists the Andantes. I have previously and will continue to praise the Andantes for their superb, skillful work. But having the same exact sound heard on records by the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and many other artists was a huge detriment to a group that was supposed to have been woman-centered. In losing Flo, the Supreme not only lost a big part of their distinctive sound; they also failed to find a new one. Diana Ross and the Supremes will turn up in this series again, but the Supremes portion of that title will mostly be in name only.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964

The Four Tops, all wearing different suits, dance for the camera in front of a stage curtain

The hits keep on coming, and as they do, these lists get harder to narrow down to a mere five picks. Holland-Dozier-Holland was still Motown’s premiere songwriting team, but Smokey Robinson was nowhere near ready to give up his crown as King of Motown. After a year of singles for his own group that went nowhere, he was back with a vengeance, producing their greatest work while keeping up a steady stream of songs for other artists.

Left without their first female star Mary Wells, Motown wasted no time at all catapulting Diana Ross into super-stardom as lead singer of the Supremes. It’s not a coincidence that from here most other women rapidly fade off of these previously gender-balanced lists, but a result of Berry’s carefully laid plans. New female stars at Motown would be born, but they’d be depressingly few and far between, and old ones would become obsolete with remarkable swiftness.

On the male side of things, Marvin Gaye was weathering a relative slump (which still meant respectable chart positions), and Stevie Wonder was facing a career crossroads and breakthrough. Meanwhile, the Tempts and Tops, always rivals yet friends, were battling it out for the title of Motown’s most successful male group — and while the Tops would win this year, 1966 would show that it was still anybody’s’ game.

Motown was now a bona fide cultural phenomenon, an unstoppable force. Whatever Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson may have preferred to call it, the undeniable fact is that Motown was sweeping the airwaves with Black music. While the label’s music would almost always be more popular on the R&B charts, Motown was making Black singers, Black songs, and Black style a major part of mainstream pop culture, with far less outrage from white folks than in the past.[1. Moral panics about rap, however, show that this “conversation” is of course far from over.] Most boldly, Motown was openly positioning a Black woman as a new universal model of idealized femininity — and however problematic that ideal might have been, that is what we call a big fucking deal. There was no going back now; Motown was indeed the Sound of Young America, and it was here to stay.

1. The Tracks of My Tears

VIDEO: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (minus Claudette), dressed in white suits, lip sync their song The Tracks of My Tears on the set of a television show. The Tracks of My Tears lyrics.

Since we last saw the Miracles, they’d undergone some major changes. For one, they had been rechristened Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, putting their star lead singer’s name out front once and for all. For another, we had seen the last of Claudette, though we hadn’t heard the last of her, not by a long shot. Having suffered a devastating number of miscarriages over the years during strenuous touring, she and her doctor decided it would be best for her to stay off the road. Inexplicably, her medical condition somehow resulted in her face and name going missing from every television appearance, all of the group’s promotional materials, and the album cover credits. All the while, her exquisite harmonies would remain as prominent as ever, helping Smokey sound utterly amazing, without most people ever knowing there was a woman in the group. Some would call it “consistency in branding”; I call it sexist erasure. Nevertheless, the Miracles — er, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles — would keep on trucking, and in 1965, put out their very best album, the absurdly brilliant Going to a Go-Go.

Leading that album was Smokey Robinson’s single greatest masterpiece. We’re talking about a man who both wrote and sang more perfect songs than most of us could ever dream; but none of his other works would ever reach the singular peak of the Tracks of My Tears. It just about stuns the words out of you. The elegant lyrics are pure poetry. The textured harmonies and exquisite lead — one of Smokey’s finest, most disciplined performances — make you want to cry. And the hook is effective and instantly memorable, drawing you in no matter where you are or what you’re doing. It then pays itself off with a swelling, decadent climax in the bridge. This song simply has it all. In my opinion, it is the very, very best Motown track.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963

In matching green suits with no lapels, the Temptations pose on the sidewalk, with David Ruffin crooning dramatically into a microphone.

For the first time, you don’t have to be a Motown junkie to love this list — if you don’t know every single one of these five songs, there is something seriously, seriously wrong with your radio dial. A watershed year, it would see the breakthrough of both the Temptations and the Supremes, who would rule Motown’s roster for years to come, as well as those other beloved chart-toppers the Four Tops.

It was an eclectic year, seeing top tracks by Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, and even Hunter-Stevenson (that’s Ivy Jo Hunter and William “Mickey” Stevenson). For the first time, no one artist is listed multiple times — and yet, they easily could be. The fact that the Supremes and Tempts don’t have multiple songs scoring is because there just weren’t enough slots.

And yet, Motown faced formidable challenges this year. The arrival of the Beatles, their unprecedented dominance of the charts, and the British invasion that came in their wake left a lot of American music producers quaking in their (Beatle) boots. Audience tastes were changing, and the music being put out by most labels was changing with it. With Motown only established for a couple of years, there was a real chance that they might not survive. Far from mop tops, Motown’s Black artists and sounds were rather different from the inadequate, white-friendly imitations British acts liked to do of them. But even as Motown responded to the Beatles’ dominance,[1. Mary Wells’ tour with the group, the Berry Gordy-Beatles photo-op, the Supremes’ (abysmal) A Taste of Liverpool album …] the Motown Sound ultimately persevered and strengthened. It was one of few forms of popular music that would come out of the year in tact.

To call 1964 “Motown’s best year yet” would be to severely trivialize the matter; 1964 was one of Motown’s best years ever.

1. My Girl

VIDEO: A black and white clip of the Temptations, dressed in matching suits, performing to their track My Girl in front of a seated audience. My Girl lyrics.

Anchoring the other end of the year with another legendary release after the immaculate The Way You Do The Things You Do finally got the Tempts some much-deserved national attention in January, My Girl wasn’t actually a hit until 1965, released just as 1964 closed. But single release date is what I’m going by, and so 1964 is where this song rates. Written by Smokey Robinson as a “response track” to his own My Guy composition for Mary Wells (see below), this ode to Smokey’s wife (and Miracles member) Claudette is one of Motown’s greatest love songs. It was given to the Tempts after Smokey caught one of David’s leads during a live performance and was blown away.[2. Accounts vary on whether Smokey specifically wrote the song for him after this performance, or originally intended it for the Miracles and decided during that performance to give the song to David.] It would become the most enduring single they ever released, their signature song.

Taking over from Eddie Kendricks for the first time, one of the most intriguing things about David Ruffin’s vocal on this track is how he seems to get looser as he goes. My Girl was the first Motown song I ever fell in love with, thanks to the early 90s movie by the same name, and even as a seven-year-old, I recognized that there was something special about how he sang that last verse and outro. He goes from a careful and deliberate “I’ve got sunshine …” as the song begins to a raspy and fervent “I don’t need no money” by the time it ends. Directly linked to the success of this song, Ruffin would lead almost every single by the group for the rest of the three and a half years he remained a member, soon taking raspy to a whole new level. No mention of this song is complete without a bow to James Jamerson and Robert White on bass and guitar respectively. My Girl is exactly what any great song should be.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962

Though he did not join Motown until 1967, and therefore his work will not be featured in this post, it nevertheless seems only right to starting by noting the passing earlier this week of Funk Brother bassist Bob Babbitt. Brought on board to handle the work Jamerson couldn’t, he was an excellent bassist in his own right, and several of his most famous bass lines will be making an appearance in this series later on. With only three Funk Brothers still living, this is a very sad moment indeed. My condolences to Babbitt’s family and fellow musicians. Thanks for the music, Bob; Rest In Peace.

In Motown history, 1963 is notable for many reasons, all interconnected. In 1963, Motown’s premiere songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland formed. Brian Holland was a young songwriter and producer whose biggest success had been Please Mr. Postman, and who had been in the Motown circle back when Berry and Ray were running Rayber. His older brother Eddie, also one of their earliest acquisitions, was a Jackie Wilson-esque singer with incredible stage fright but an equally incredible knack for writing lyrics. Lamont Dozier was also a singer — one who, unlike Eddie, would eventually return to performing — who found greater success behind the scenes. Brian and Lamont would be responsible for the music, arrangement, and productions, while Eddie was the primary lyricist, finishing the songs while the other two laid down backing tracks, and then recording vocal demos and teaching the singers their parts. They were an incredibly productive and efficient team, working their method out to a science, and this along with their incredible skill contributed to their prominence.

Not coincidentally, 1963 has been noted as the year that saw the start of the Motown assembly line. This is a difficult thing to pin down, with several of its features, or at least rudimentary versions, having already been in place in prior years. The “assembly line” is dubbed such because of its basis in inspiration from real assembly lines at Detroit’s auto factories, and represents the label’s regimented, efficient, and incredibly quick way of recording and releasing singles. The assembly line’s most famous feature is its Quality Control meetings, which eventually took place every Friday morning. Producers would play their latest recordings, and they would get voted up or down for release by other producers, sometimes from teenagers pulled off the street, and by Berry himself; these meetings could be rough and get incredibly heated, and standards were often set very high. Whether or not the assembly line really started in ’63 or had existed in some form prior, Motown released a lot more singles and albums that year than they had any year before. The studio started running longer hours; songwriters started getting more competitive; and producers started lining up outside Hitsville’s one studio, round the clock, waiting for their hour or two with the band to lay down what they hoped would be their latest hit (and its B-side).

Just as hard to precisely put your finger on but also notably given credit to this year, and inextricably intertwined with the emergence of both HDH and the assembly line, is the birth of the Motown Sound. I’ve said before that the Motown Sound, while instantly recognizable and inimitable, is something incredibly difficult to define. I’m surely not qualified for the task. While, as with the assembly line, many qualities of the Motown Sound could be found on countless previous recordings, 1963 was undoubtedly the year that the Motown Sound coalesced, the year you could start picking a Motown record off the radio before the singer came in.

It was a good year for Motown. It was a a good year for Martha and the Vandellas, a good year for Marvin Gaye, and an absolutely great year for Holland-Dozier-Holland. It was probably the last year before Motown completely lost its innocence, when artists would talk about Motown as “family” and do so with an entirely straight face. Though the music was still great — in fact, it got better — that would very soon no longer be true. One cannot help but relish in the youth and joy present on all of these tracks.

1. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave

VIDEO: Martha and the Vandellas dance and lip sync to their song Heat Wave in front of a crowd of dancing teenagers. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave lyrics.

One of the most brilliant records Motown ever released, this song is on fire from start to finish. The backing track is all horns and drums, and the vocals are nothing less than a tour de force. Filled to the brim with verve, female lust hits the dance floor. Martha is at her very best, sounding truly overwhelmed with desire; the Vandellas are slaying it, making a much greater sound than two women should have been able; and with Richard “Pistol” Allen leading the way, the FunkĀ  Brothers are giving the performance of a lifetime. A blast of life and frenzy, it always feels over just as soon as it starts; and then you’ve got to play it again. If this isn’t the Motown Sound, I don’t know what the hell is. But in the end, who cares what you call it? It’s one of the best damn sounds that’s ever going to come out of your speakers.

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